AFI Film School Graduate Zoé Wittock goes the extra mile

AFI Film School

AFI film student Zoé Wittock recently completed her short film 'This Is Not An Umbrella’ but it wasn't an easy task, and she had to overcome difficult obstacles in order to get her film made. From fundraising to shooting in the scorching 'desert heat' on 35mm, Wittock was determined to get the look and feel of her movie just right.

The up and coming film director has a wide range of cultural experiences, having lived in Europe, Africa and Australia. Originally from Belgium, Wittock has studied at film school in Paris and was accepted as part of the Berlinale Talent Campus in 2008 after which she attended the AFI Conservatory. She was also recognised with the Hal and Robyn Berson scholarship for excellence in directing. Zoé's approach to her latest film is a great lesson for aspiring filmmakers who are looking to maximize their production and want to come up with 'out of the box' ideas to make them happen. Discover how Zoé Wittock went the extra mile to make her film become a reality.

Iain: How did you raise the financing you needed to make your short film on 35mm?

Zoé: Well, AFI starts us off with a certain amount of money. From there, we start the fundraising. We shot promotional 30 seconds videos and put them on the website we made for the film. Then, we started getting the word around. We looked for donations from friends, friends of friends, family, private investors and generous companies. Unfortunately, since the final producers of the film came on board so last minute, my DP and myself raised most of the money!

It was a long and painful process that took about 8 months… Yes, it’s hard to get anyone to invest money, when it’s not profitable. That’s actually when family moral support comes well in handy. Also, AFI is a non-profit organization, which means that donations are tax deductible for major companies. That helped convincing some of them to donate. We also found a couple of matching grants for the arts, acquired through employees that work at enterprises, which include this system.

Iain: What were the biggest challenges you faced?

Zoé: We faced so many! I don’t think I’ve ever directed nor worked on such a doomed production. From people breaking their legs, to the producer leaving the project last minute, to interminable VFX, to the sets not being built on time for the shoot, etc…
But overall, simply in terms of the shooting of the film, I would say that the location was really hard to shoot in. We were shooting during the blasting heat of the summer, and in a hilly location. We were under very difficult conditions.
On reshoots, I even fainted… haha! Thankfully my DP, who was my closest creative partner, took over momentarily. I talked him through the shots and rhythm one more time and coached my actors from the car where I was recovering (the AC was blasting in there). Everyone on the set had a lot of talent, so that ultimately made my job easier! Plus, having Dave Szamet, a strong producer, by my side helped in feeling that the set was going to keep functioning well. Anyway, it wasn’t long before I was back on my feet and ready to finish this small monster of mine! In the end, it all worked out: on set, and in post-production.

Iain: Where did you find the locations to shoot?

Zoé: We shot in the near deserts of LA. In Santa Clarita. Actually the beauty of this location came from a tragedy: Not too long before we shot there, a fire, giving it this tragic feeling with black burnt bushes, ravaged the whole terrain.

Iain: How did you approach your casting to get the right actors?

Zoé: I went with a casting director. I had a first one who did not work out: I felt that she was not bringing in the right caliber of actors. So then we moved to a different casting director, Lisa Essary. She did a great job and understood what I needed for this peculiar film. Our sensitivity just meshed well.

Iain: What kind of equipment did you use to shoot with?

Zoé: We shot on 35mm… With 2 Panavision cameras: One from the school, and another generously donated by the VP of Panavision! This included a full camera package, with all the lenses and toys we dreamed of. It was amazing. Plus, Fuji donated film to us after having read the script. And finally, we got a developing grant through AFI. We worked really hard to get what we wanted, but in the end, we got it all!

And just a funny anecdote: Valentin and I wanted to have a huge crane, which of course we knew we weren’t going to be able to get. So one day our producer comes to us and says: “Hey, we found you a fire truck, will that work?”. To that, I said: “yes, I guess that’s good enough…” Haha. So we ended up going 90 feet up in the air on a fire truck for 2 of the shots. Isn’t that amazing?

Iain: What’s it like at the AFI Film School?

Zoé: AFI is first and foremost a great pool of talent, whether it’d be within the fellows, or the staff. We are lucky enough to be instructed by working professionals, who understand the creative, business, and technical side of things.
This environment can only challenge you to want to do better, to get the best out of you. And that’s what it did to me I think. I feel that AFI has helped me perfect my skill, but also helped me find who I was as an artist (not that I’ll ever stop looking for it). It’s like a 2 ½ year bootcamp. They deconstruct you, show you the guidelines, and it’s up to you to reconstruct yourself according to your personal beliefs and tastes.

I’m grateful to have gone through it and would not exchange this experience for anything in the world… No matter how much I could hate it sometimes. (Hate is so close to love!)

Iain: Do you have any projects you are currently working on that we should know about?

Zoé: Well, yes actually. Now that I’m finally out of school and have some time for myself, I just finished writing my first feature. I’ve started writing a second one, and I’m on hold to direct a feature that I didn’t write. So things are going pretty well for me. Can’t complain. We’ll see where everything goes…It always takes time and you just never know what to expect in this industry. In the meantime, I am 1st ADing to keep afloat.

The short is currently being submitted to film festivals around the world.

Zoé Wittock Official website :

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